Welcome to real life, Martin

Martin Bell says 24-hour news channels are 'frenzied and fallible'. His former boss, Chris Cramer, now running CNN, asks: why should viewers be forced to wait?

I did what I always do. The other night, the last thing before going to bed at my home in Atlanta, I went over to my computer and read the British newspapers on line - before they arrived on most doorsteps or newsstands in Britain. It is what many millions of people do around the world these days. They don't wait for the conventional dissemination of global information, they have woken up to the 21st century.

So it was with mounting incredulity that I read Martin Bell's eccentric attack on the genre of continuous news on television. He argued that rolling news is deeply flawed and should not be relied upon in times of crisis. He reminded us of those halcyon days when bygone audiences were better served by conventional news programmes, delivered once or twice a day after hours of meticulous preparation by caring editors.

Give me a break, Martin.

He was attacking the work of tens of thousands of passionate journalists the world over - dedicated professionals who have chosen to work for organisations that believe viewers are entitled to news as it happens not when broadcasters are prepared to schedule it for them.

Continuous news was invented by Ted Turner with the launch of CNN in 1980. Since then CNN - and 24-hour news - has come of age; with live coverage of Tiananman Square in 1989, the explosion of the shuttle Challenger in 1986, the Gulf War in 1991 and the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Is CNN or BBC News 24 or Sky or Al Jazeera perfect? Of course not. Like journalists through the ages, we are human and we make mistakes. This has next to nothing to do with the objectives of the channels we work for. It has little to do with competition.

But I venture that there isn't a broadcast journalist in the world, including Martin Bell, who hasn't made an honest mistake because of the pressures of our work. I still die with shame at the memory of reading a news bulletin out on BBC radio that was precisely one week out of date. Why did I do it? Because, in my haste, I grabbed the wrong script.

It happens. In every newsroom. In every operation. And it always will. Research will almost certainly show that most serious broadcasting errors, resulting in substantial damages and public apology, have happened not on rolling news but on more conventional long-form programmes, documentaries and investigations. It wasn't the excitement of breaking news that landed broadcasters in hot water. It was poor journalism.

CNN is proud of what it has achieved in the past 23 years and proud that it gave birth to other versions of continuous news. The thousands of journalists who work for us are passionate people who do their best throughout the world to provide a comprehensive, impartial news and information service in a variety of languages and styles. And there isn't a serious global, regional and national broadcaster who hasn't followed suit.

We welcome a debate that focuses on improving what we all do. A debate about the free-flow of information, of editorial integrity, the safety of the media in a world where some people see us as legitimate targets.

In Dying to Tell The Story, a book jointly edited by John Owen and myself, we pay tribute to the 20 or so colleagues and co-workers who gave their lives so the world might see and read about the war in Iraq. Many of those who died worked for rolling news operations. They were in harm's way because they cared about covering the news for a modern world.

I am sorry to burst Bell's bubble but CNN, Sky and others are here to stay. They are a crucial part of the information revolution and for many millions of viewers around the world they are the single source of news on a daily basis.

We live in a world impatient to be there. Viewers want to be taken to the story as it happens, live and unvarnished. Many will also watch a more considered news bulletin later in the day, some will read a newspaper the following morning, or a news magazine later in the week. That is the world we live in.

With considerable affection for Bell, I offer him the following advice. Log off from the internet, if you use it. Turn off the TV and the radio. Switch off the lights and light a candle. Sit back and wait patiently for the town crier to arrive outside your home to tell you whether all is well with the world or not.

Sadly, your neighbours tend to be more impatient for their news.

The writer is managing director of CNN International and co-author of 'Dying to Tell The Story'. He was formerly head of newsgathering at the BBC

Comments